Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Viva Piñata Review

Viva Piñata, developed by Rare and Climax Group and published by Microsoft.
The Good: Great theme, good management mechanics, lots of piñatas to encounter
The Not So Good: Horribly limited console interface, absent online features, annoying in-game tutorial and cut scenes with almost constant message spam
What say you? A decent life management simulation ruined by its cumbersome interface: 5/8

Console ports are becoming disturbingly more popular: make a console game, and then bring it over to the PC two years later. Or, feature a simultaneous release while keeping the console interface intact, removing the advantages a mouse and keyboard brings to the table. This brings us to Viva Piñata, which appeared on the XBOX 360 one year ago. Not only was the game fairly popular with the console crowd, but it spawned an advertising tool...excuse me...animated series on TV. How will this colorful life management game perform on the PC?

Viva Piñata features some very distinctive graphics full of color and life. In fact, it's reminiscent of a children's cartoon in many ways, making the game appeal to a wide audience just in terms of visual style. Each of the piñatas in the game is designed well and mirror real-life animals. The environments are bright and the level of detail is good. The game does have a slightly annoying sheen during the daytime hours as the animals seem a bit too reflective. Overall, though, the game looks very good on the PC's higher resolutions. The sound is OK, with some fitting background music and appropriate effects uttered by the many creatures that will populate your garden. It's not surprising that the PC is able to handle an XBOX 360 game very well, and Viva Piñata is no exception as its bright graphics and good theme is kept intact.

Viva Piñata is a management game where you manipulate your garden in order to enslave (I mean attract) piñatas to your bidding. First off, the game takes up 8 GB of hard drive space, yet requires the CD to be in the drive in order to run: nice. Viva Piñata features Games for Windows – LIVE support, although I don’t know why: all you can do is send rewards to other players and gain meaningless achievements. The console roots of the game rears its ugly head in the control scheme. Viva Piñata is clearly designed for an XBOX controller and the interface is designed for a person sitting six feet away from a TV, not a person sitting one foot from a monitor. First, the game can be controlled with the mouse, but you have to select most of the options from a radial menu in the upper right corner (you know, the corner that nobody uses in PC games because of its inaccessibility). Dialogue boxes take up the whole screen and freeze the game while you read them, instead of appearing at the bottom and allowing you to continue what you were doing before being rudely interrupted. Cut scenes can’t be skipped and disrupt gameplay too often as well: you’ll find you get a new message or cut scene about every three minutes (especially at the beginning of the game) and that is quite annoying. Non-tutorial messages require four clicks to read: one to select the message bar, one to select the message, one to close it, and one to delete it. I wish the developers would have played any strategy game published in the past fifteen years before coming up with this horrible interface. I guess it shouldn't surprise me that we get a bad interface from a company that can't design a decent operating system.

It’s too bad the interface is so terrible, because the rest of Viva Piñata is actually quite enjoyable. You will encounter about fifty piñatas over the course of the game, and each mirrors a real-life animal, such as a horse, worm, butterfly, cow, or elephant. Each piñata has needs to attract then inhabit your garden; you need to search and select a piñata in order to find out the needs as the interface (of course) only lists permanent residents of your gardens and not visitors. A piñata’s happiness level affects their desirability to live in your garden, and it can be affected by constructing housing, meeting needs, and being whacked with a shovel. Since you will only have limited control over your piñatas, most of the gameplay involves building a pleasant home for them. This is done through the various tools that reside in the main menu (which, of course, takes up the entire screen and pauses the game). New items can be bought from the store, such as fertilizer, watering cans, seeds, paved paths, sweets (for stat bonuses), fruit and vegetables, produce, fencing, and various decorative items. Viva Piñata has a two-pronged approach: attract piñatas and make money through gardening, and that’s where most of the items in the shop are used. You can also purchase pets, construct housing, and hire helpers to assist with watering, weeding, or pests. There is even someone who can craft new items for a price, just like in Fury.

The gameplay of Viva Piñata is very reminiscent of The Sims, although you have generally less control over your minions and everything is done through environmental manipulation. There is a maze-like mini-game when piñatas reproduce and a number of things that make maintaining a good garden difficult, like sour piñatas and naturally opposed piñatas. There is also a limit to the amount of stuff you can have in your garden; I suppose this is to avoid an over saturation of piñatas (which would consequently make the game too easy), but isn’t a large collection of animals kind of the point? Gotta catch them all! New items are unlocked at a good pace, and if the tutorial messages weren’t so damn annoying new players would ease right in to a new game. It is fun to maintain your garden and unlock new piñatas, and if you enjoy these kinds of games (and a lot of people do, considering the sales figures of The Sims) then Viva Piñata will prove to be fun. Overall Viva Piñata is a good game, but it is clearly not built for the PC.

A poor interface might not be a big deal to some people, but if a game is frustrating to play because of the controls and they can't be changed, then it makes the game a lot less fun. This is the Achilles’ heel of Viva Piñata, and it makes the PC version of the game a poorly ported afterthought. Apparently it is too much to ask for an improved interface that takes advantage of the PC’s superiority as a platform. The game does offer a lot of content through improving your garden and unlocking new piñatas, so people who like this genre will be kept quite busy for a while. However, the potential of the game is hindered by some questionable design decisions and lack of multiplayer options. Frankly, I’m getting tired of half-assed ports when there is clearly room for improvement in the interface. PC games are not controlled in the same fashion as console games and you don’t need to enlarge all of the text so we can see it from a foot away. But the developers of Viva Piñata took the easy way out and just made a console game that runs in Windows. The enjoyment that Viva Piñata offers is offset by an annoying interface that will surely irritate PC veterans. Viva Piñata is not worth the effort of wrestling with the interface.